How Should Complex Securities Be Valued?

Should firms be forced to adopt fair-value accounting?:

Disclose the fair value of complex securities, by Robert Kaplan, Robert Merton and Scott Richard, Commentary, Financial Times: Banks and other financial institutions are lobbying against fair-value accounting for their asset holdings. They claim many of their assets are not impaired, that they intend to hold them to maturity anyway and that recent transaction prices reflect distressed sales into an illiquid market, not what the assets are actually worth. Legislatures and regulators support these arguments, preferring to conceal depressed asset prices rather than deal with the consequences of insolvent banks.
This is not the way forward..., allowing financial institutions to ignore market transactions is a bad idea. ... Markets function best when companies disclose valid information about the values of their assets and future cash flows. If companies choose not to disclose their best estimates of the fair values of their assets, market participants will make their own judgments about future cash flows and subtract a risk premium for non-disclosure. Good accounting should reduce such dead-weight losses.
This already happens in another financial sector. Mutual funds in the US now use models, rather than the last traded price, to provide estimates of the fair values of their assets that trade in overseas markets. ... In this way, the funds ensure that their shareholders do not trade at biased net asset values calculated from stale prices. ... Obtaining fair-value estimates for complex pools of asset-backed securities, of course, is not trivial. But these days it is possible for a bank’s analysts to use recent market transaction prices as reference points and then adjust for the unique characteristics of the assets they actually hold...
Legislators and regulators fear that marking banks’ assets down to fair-value estimates will trigger automatic actions as capital ratios deteriorate. But using accounting rules to mislead regulators with inaccurate information is a poor policy. If capital calculations are based on inaccurate values of assets, the ratios are already lower than they appear. Banks should provide regulators with the best information about their assets and liabilities and, separately, allow them the flexibility and discretion to adjust capital adequacy ratios based on the economic situation. Regulators can lower capital ratios during downturns and raise them during good economic times.
No system of disclosing the fair value of complex securities is perfect. ... But reasonable and auditable methods exist today to incorporate the information in the most recent market prices. Investors, creditors, boards and regulators need not base decisions on biased values of a company’s financial assets and liabilities.

When we are experiencing an asset price bubble, we would prefer that firms value their assets at the intrinsic (true) value rather than the inflated bubble values, values that will crash when the bubble pops. However, bubbles do not always have to be positive, it's also possible for prices to deviate from intrinsic values on the low side, i.e. it's possible to have a negative bubble. In such cases, if you believe firms should use true prices rather that bubble prices when prices are above their intrinsic values, then you should also believe that the same is true when prices are below their intrinsic values. So one way to look at the question of whether current market prices are the right prices to use to value the assets on bank balance sheets is to ask whether there's reason to believe that we are in a negative bubble, i.e. if there's reason to believe that prices are artificially suppressed below their true values.

I'm not convinced that they are, but that's not a position held with much certainty, and the valuations that regulators are allowing implicitly assume that current market prices are, in fact, too low. The problem is that the true prices are not known, it's not even clear they can be estimated with any precision, and this leaves open the possibility of substantially upwardly biased valuations (the fact that we never know for sure if prices are deviating from true values is a reason to make fair-values available to those who want to use the information these valuations provide).

So there are two ways that banks balance sheets can present an overly optimistic picture. First, if the current market prices are correct, but we believe falsely that they are too low and allow firms to carry higher values on their books, then the values will be too optimistic. Second, even if the belief that current market prices are below true values, i.e. that we are in a negative bubble, is correct, it's not clear what prices we should use instead since the true price is not known. There's lots of room for firms and regulators looking to present best case scenarios to endorse overly optimistic valuations.

links for 2009-08-18

“Odd WSJ Story on Vermont”

Tim Duy turns from Fed Watcher to Press Watcher. Will more regulation in mortgage markets lead to outcomes like Vermont's?:

Odd WSJ Story on Vermont, by Tim Duy: The Wall Street Journal has an odd piece on the Vermont mortgage market today. Odd in that the thesis appears to be completely unsupported by the rest of the piece. The story begins:

In plenty of other states, Andrea Todd would have been a homeowner years ago. Here, she bought just this month -- a difference that helps explain how Vermont avoided the housing bust, and shows the possible pitfalls in President Barack Obama's plan to tighten mortgage regulation…

...Vermont's strict mortgage-lending laws largely prevented the state's residents from signing the types of dubious home loans written in other markets across the country. Its 1990s legislation made mortgage lenders warn customers when their rates were relatively high, and put the brokers who arranged loans on the hook if their customers defaulted. Now, by at least one measure, the state has the lowest foreclosure rate in the U.S.

It came at a cost. The rules also kept some Vermonters like Ms. Todd from buying homes, keeping this rural corner of New England on the sidelines of the housing boom and the economic bonanza that came with it. Vermont's 10-year growth trails the national average.

The tenor of the article is that Vermont has overregulated the mortgage market preventing…wait for it…the unforgivable error of restricting loans to those who can prove an ability to repay. Worse yet, consumers receive explicit notice of high rates and brokers are held accountable:

In laws passed between 1996 and 1998, Vermont required lenders to tell consumers when their rates were substantially higher than competitors', with notices printed on "a colored sheet of paper, chartreuse or passion pink." And in what officials believe is the first state law of its kind, Vermont declared that mortgage brokers' fiduciary responsibility was to borrowers, not lenders. This left Vermont brokers partly on the hook for loans gone sour.

The insanity. The horror. Encourage personal responsibility? Hold people accountable for their behavior? Unthinkable. While of course such policies would limit defaults, the economic consequences would be disastrous:

Vermont's economy grew 60% in the 10 years ending in 2008, just behind the 63% rate nationally, according to the Commerce Department. Vermont lagged Arizona, Nevada and California over the decade but outpaced most of its New England neighbors.

That's right, Vermont's growth trails the national average by an astounding 3 percentage points over a decade. They truly missed the economic boom. Why surely Vermont would have outpaced Arizona had it not been for the stunningly tight mortgage markets. The snow didn't have anything to do with it.

Of course, homeownership rates in Vermont are dismal. A state of renters, virtual serfs in this medieval land. The author forges bravely ahead:

Vermonters didn't see the same sharp rise in home ownership that swept much of America in recent decades, which, despite the bust, buoyed economic growth. And while part of the increase in U.S. home ownership reflected excesses in lending and borrowing, some of it represented real progress in the form of more Americans achieving the cherished goal of getting -- and keeping -- a home of their own. By 2007, the percentage of owner-occupied households as a whole reached 68.1%, up from 63.9% in 1990, according to U.S. Census data. Vermont started at a higher base but saw ownership rise just 1.1 percentage points in that span, to 73.7%.

The according to the article, the "pitfalls" amount to: Informed consumers, fewer foreclosures, healthier banks, higher rates of homeownership, and virtually no impact on average growth. Those are some "pitfalls" - truly, greater consumer financial protection would spell ruin for us all.

“Public Option versus Co-ops: The Market Test”

What do prediction and financial markets have to say about the prospect of dropping the public option and replacing it with health care co-ops? Here's Arin Dube with a follow-up to this post with an answer you probably won't like:

Public Option versus “Co-ops”: The Market Test, by Arin Dube: President Obama says he is serious about making sure we have a competitive alternative to the private health insurance companies to drive down costs. However, he is now apparently open to the idea of “health co-operatives” that will be regional purchasing pools operating independently of the federal government.  How well will these co-ops achieve his stated goals?  To assess this, we can start with his own words and those of his subordinates.  Well, to be precise, how various investors reacted to these words.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A shows how investors in the Intrade prediction market reacted to signals from the Obama administration on Sunday August 16 that they are willing to ditch the public health insurance option. In the market’s assessment, the likelihood of a federally administered health plan passing fell from around 35% to around 20%, the biggest one-day drop since the prediction market started in June.

So as the public option’s condition went to critical, and “co-ops” started looking increasingly likely, how did investors in the top 4 private health insurance companies react? As exhibit B shows, champagne bottles were popped.

Exhibit B

On a day when the broader stock market took a hit (dropping 2.2% at the time of writing), these four companies with a combined market cap of $80 billion saw their prices rise an average of  3%.  Actually, if you dot the i’s and cross the t’s in calculating “abnormal returns”** for these four companies, it comes to be 5.8%.  All in all, statements by the Obama administration over the weekend helped investors of private health insurance markets make around $4.6 billion.

So, as the market’s assessed likelihood of the public option passing dropped by 15 percentage points, share prices rose by around 6 percentage. If you are willing to extrapolate based on this event, going from a public option to “co-ops” would be worth around 40% of the value of these companies, or around $32 billion.  This is similar to the results from my previous analysis of how market reacted to announcements by members of the Senate Finance Committee.

President Obama may have harsh words for the insurance companies. But those are not the words investors in these companies are paying attention to. They are paying attention to whether President Obama will sign a bill with vague “co-ops” or demand a public option. And the reaction by these investors bodes poorly for “co-ops” fulfilling their role as a serious competitive alternative to private insurance companies.

***** 

** Abnormal returns are calculated as [Raw Return] – beta * [Index Return]. Betas for AET, UNH, WLP and CI are 1.3, 1.14, 1.15 and 1.88 respectively (from Google Finance).

Arindrajit Dube is an economist at UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment who is joining the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His work focuses on labor and health economics topics, as well as political economy.

“The Public Option as a Signal”

More from Paul Krugman on the public option:

The public option as a signal, by Paul Krugman: Look, it is possible to have universal care without a public option; Switzerland does. But there are some good reasons for the prominence of the public option in our debate.

One is substantive: to have a workable system without the public option, you need to have effective regulation of the insurers. Given the realities of our money-dominated politics, you really have to worry whether that can be done — which is a reason to have a more or less automatic mechanism for disciplining the industry.

The second is what the option debate says about Obama.

If progressives had real trust in Obama’s commitment to doing the right thing, the administration would have broad leeway to do deals. But the president doesn’t command that kind of trust.

Partly it’s a matter of style — as many people have noted, he has been weirdly reluctant to make the moral case for universal care, weirdly unable to show passion on the issue, weirdly diffident even about the blatant lies from the right. Partly it’s a spillover from his other policies: by appointing an economic team that’s Rubin redux, by taking such a kindly attitude to the banks, he has squandered a lot of progressive enthusiasm.

Add in the dealmaking as part of the health care process itself, and progressives can be forgiven for having the impression that Obama (a) takes them for granted (b) is way too easily rolled by the other side.

So progressives have their backs up over one provision in health care reform that’s easy to monitor. The public option has become not so much a symbol as a signal, a test of whether Obama is really the progressive activists thought they were backing.

And the bizarre thing is that the administration doesn’t seem to get that.

I think there's another factor as well. It's not just that Democrats don't trust Obama's commitment to progressive issues, and it's not simply a matter of style, or a spillover from other appointments, though I do agree these are issues. It's also the sense that the same old right-wing crazies are driving the public debate to a much greater extent than is justified by the last election. This was supposed to be a new era, one where progressive ideas would dominate public policy, not an era where a false charge of "death panels" would dominate the public discourse, and certainly not an era where misrepresentations from the far right extreme would cause the public option to be dropped from the legislation.

Whether the administration simply does not have the political power, lacks sufficient will, doesn't understand the political significance, or what, it's hard for supporters to watch the same political game unfold once again in what was supposed to be a new era in progressive politics. It's a frustrating slap in the face for progressives who support the administration, and it's the sense of powerless against the right-wing false message machine that is driving that frustration.

The administration needs to take a stand against something important - and win. And not just for what is signals to supporters. Compromise will never appease the crazies on the right, strength is the only way to beat them.

links for 2009-08-17

Paul Krugman: The Swiss Menace

If health care reform happens, it looks like it will be "Swissified". Like the cheese, it has some holes, but gets the job done:

The Swiss Menace, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It was the blooper heard round the world. In an editorial denouncing Democratic health reform plans, Investor’s Business Daily tried to frighten its readers by declaring that in Britain,... the handicapped physicist Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance,” because the National Health Service would consider his life “essentially worthless.”
Professor Hawking, who was born in Britain, has lived there all his life, and has been well cared for by the National Health Service, was not amused. ...
Investor’s Business Daily would like you to believe that Obamacare would turn America into ... a dystopian fantasy version of Britain. The screamers on talk radio and Fox News would have you believe that the plan is to turn America into the Soviet Union. But the truth is that the plans ... would, roughly speaking, turn America into Switzerland — which may be occupied by lederhosen-wearing holey-cheese eaters, but wasn’t a socialist hellhole the last time I looked. ...
Every wealthy country other than the United States guarantees essential care to all its citizens. There are, however,... three main approaches...
In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works...; these stories are false..., over all it appears to provide quite good care while spending only about 40 percent as much.... By the way, our own Veterans Health Administration, which is run somewhat like the British health service, also manages to combine quality care with low costs.
The second route to universal coverage leaves the actual delivery of health care in private hands, but the government pays most of the bills. That’s how Canada and, in a more complex fashion, France do it. It’s also [how]... Medicare...[does it]... Again, you hear a lot of horror stories about such systems, most of them false. ... And Medicare is highly popular, as evidenced by the tendency of town-hall protesters to demand that the government keep its hands off the program.
Finally, the third route to universal coverage relies on private insurance companies, using a combination of regulation and subsidies to ensure that everyone is covered. Switzerland offers the clearest example: everyone is required to buy insurance, insurers can’t discriminate based on medical history or pre-existing conditions, and lower-income citizens get government help...
Massachusetts health reform more or less follows the Swiss model; costs are running higher than expected, but the reform has greatly reduced the number of uninsured. And the most common form of health insurance in America, employment-based coverage, actually has some “Swiss” aspects:... employers have to follow rules that effectively rule out discrimination based on medical history and subsidize care for lower-wage workers.
So where does Obamacare fit into all this? Basically, it’s a plan to Swissify America, using regulation and subsidies to ensure universal coverage.
If we were starting from scratch we probably wouldn’t have chosen this route. True “socialized medicine” would undoubtedly cost less, and a straightforward extension of Medicare-type coverage to all Americans would probably be cheaper... That’s why I and others believe that a true public option competing with private insurers is extremely important: otherwise, rising costs could all too easily undermine the whole effort.
But a Swiss-style system of universal coverage would be a vast improvement on what we have now. And we already know that such systems work.
So we can do this. At this point, all that stands in the way of universal health care in America are the greed of the medical-industrial complex, the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, and the gullibility of voters who believe those lies.

How Will We Know when the Economy Turns the Corner?

One question I am asked fairly often is how we will know when the economy turns the corner and we are on our way to a solid recovery. My answer is that we will be able to detect upticks in the data, though this may come with a bit of a lag, the important but harder task will be to understand why the data are showing improvement.

In order to be convinced that the economy is on solid footing and headed to better times, I will want to see several things. First, though not necessarily foremost, that banks are being recapitalized with private sector funds, and that this is happening without the aid of government guarantees or other such programs that encourage capital infusions (which is hard to determine while the government programs are in place). Second, I will want to see private sector non-residential investment improving, another sign that private sector funds are moving back into circulation. Presently, this hasn't even started heading back upward, though there are signs the decline is slowing:

And there are other important factors too, e.g. consumption rebounding (though not to pre-crisis debt sustained levels), stabilization in housing markets, and so on. The point is that a self-sustaining recovery will require that the private sector be the primary driver of new economic activity, and that is what I will be looking for.

Once the economy does start to recover, the hard but critical part will be to determine how much of the recovery is self-sustaining (as it will be if private sector funds are driving the activity), and how much is being driven by government stimulus programs. If the recovery is self-sustaining, and we are fairly certain of that, then we can begin to carefully wind down the government programs supporting the economy. But if the recovery is mostly due to government stimulus and there is little sign that the financial and real sectors are attracting robust levels of private sector funds, then pulling back on government programs could be disastrous and plunge the economy right back into recession. In fact, in such a case, we may need to provide even more stimulus to fully bridge the gap until the private sector can support the economy on its own.

So, in answer to the question, we will have a pretty good idea when the economy turns the corner, but it will take awhile to determine why, and we cannot risk pulling back on government programs until we are sufficiently certain that the private sector can support normal economic activity without the government's help.

“A Public Option Isn’t a Curse or a Cure”

This was in today's links and received quite a few comments, so I'll put it into its own post in case people want to continue the discussion (I think the post below this one refutes some of the main points, e.g. that the public sector can never win a fair fight or be innovative):

A Public Option Isn’t a Curse, or a Cure, by Richard Thaler, Commentary, NY Times: [T]he question of whether a “public option” should be part of the health care solution ... is a red herring, and is getting in the way of genuine reform.
In debating the public option — that is, an insurance option run by the government — the politicians themselves are making exaggerated claims about its pros and cons. We hear from the right that an insurance plan run by the government will drive all private-sector insurers out of business and be the first step toward socialism, if not communism. The left claims that only a public option can give evil insurers the competition they need to create much-needed reform.
To evaluate these contentions, we need to know some details about how a public option would work in practice. And those details have been missing.
For example, President Obama has said that the public plan would be required to break even financially, but Congress hasn’t decided how to make that happen. ... Nailing down this detail is crucial. If the public option does not have to break even — if, in fact, it is to receive government subsidies — then it is correct to worry that it would destroy competition, not foster it. ...
A second detail is whether the government will grant the public plan the power to impose special deals with suppliers like hospitals and drug companies — a move that would dampen, not enhance, competition with the private sector. But let’s assume that the public option does have to break even and can’t make any special deals. What should we expect to happen?
Here is a thought experiment: Can you think of a domain where a government-run business competes successfully with private-sector companies? ...President Obama mentioned one such example: the market for overnight shipments. This market now has two main private suppliers, FedEx and UPS, and one public one, the United States Postal Service. When you have to send something overnight, which one do you use? Most shippers choose one of the private companies. ...
More generally, it is hard to find examples where government-run businesses compete with private companies and win. One reason is that governments are not very good at innovation. As the great 19th-century economist Alfred Marshall wrote, “A government could print a good edition of Shakespeare’s works, but it could not get them written.”
But what about the often-stated fact that Medicare has much lower operating costs than private insurance companies? Won’t this allow the public option to compete successfully? As Victor Fuchs ... recently argued in The New England Journal of Medicine, this is not an apt comparison because the new public plan would have marketing and other administrative costs that don’t apply to Medicare with its captive market.
All of this leads me to conclude that if we impose sensible rules on the public option, it will neither save nor destroy the health care system because it will simply not get much market share. And if we do not impose those rules, the public option will hurt rather than help.
So here’s some free advice to members of Congress: ...
To the Republicans, I say this: If you can get real assurances that the public option has to break even, and that it will get no special deals from suppliers, let the Democrats have it but ask for concessions on tort reform in return. (That could actually save some money.) The resulting public plan will be too small to notice.
To the Democrats, I say this: If you want competition in health care, you won’t get it if the public option can make deals its competitors can’t. So either give the Republicans hard assurances that the public option would have to break even and not get special treatment, or, better yet, just give it up to ensure that some useful health care reform is passed. A public option is neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving the real goals of reform, and those goals are too important to risk losing the war.

Public Private Competition in Garbage Collection

The public option for health care appears to be dead, so this is a bit late, but I keep hearing that there are no examples of public-private competition, let alone successful ones. But there are examples of this, and they have been successful.

We are used to the argument that the private sector can discipline and usually beat the government in terms of providing services at minimum cost (though I should note that is not always true). What is harder to find is anything written on how the government can do the same to the private sector, force them to provide innovative services at minimum cost (the point of the public plan in health care), partly because nobody ever seems to ask that question. Thus, an important part of this description of public-private competition to provide garbage collection services in Phoenix to note is that the discipline runs both ways, government forces the private sector to lower costs and be innovative, and the private sector forces the government to do the same (e.g. see the part at the end where the private firm loses the contract to the government and vows to win the next contract with its experimental truck).

This article was written in 1984, so it is untainted by the current debate, but this was also a time period when there was a lot of enthusiasm and interest in privatization. Hence, many of the articles written around this time are slanted toward examining how the private sector can discipline the government, not the other way around. Still, the story below makes clear that the city did force the private sector to continue to innovate and improve. Another interesting point is that the private sector contractor claims that the bidding process is much improved when the city is forced to participate (e.g. in specifying specs, see the full article for more on this point), a benefit of public-private competition that is often overlooked (I couldn't find much written on the Phoenix experiment more recently, so I don't know for sure how well the program has performed since the 1980s and 1990s when most of the articles on the Phoenix experiment appeared, but it does appear that currently the city won contracts in two of the three regions where private sector competition is present):

Entrepreneurs Can Do Everything Government Can Do, Only Better, by Eugene Linden, Inc., Dec. 1, 1984: Chuck Walbridge and Ron Jensen both see themselves as solid businessmen. There is a certain irony in this perception: Although both may be solid, Jensen is not a businessman at all, but a government bureaucrat.
That hasn't kept him from competing with Walbridge, however. Last year, for example, the two bid on the same contract, with Walbridge coming up the winner. Jensen has vowed that it won't happen again."We will be analyzing every cost to see where we might have gone wrong," he says. Walbridge, for his part, admits that Jensen is a tough competitor...
Jensen is director of the Public Works Department of Phoenix -- a city that regularly invites private companies to bid against its own agencies on various contracts. It was such a contract, the one for garbage collection, that was awarded in the summer of 1983 to Walbridge's company...
The ... concept behind privatization is not as new as it may seem. U.S. government administrations have long vacillated between providing services themselves and contracting them out. During the early 1800s, for example, privately operated bridges, tollroads, fire departments, and street lights were commonplace. Subsequently, gross abuses by both private contractors and public officials led to an outcry that caused governments to start providing the services themselves. Now the wheel has turned full circle, and privatization is seen as a solution to the problem of governmental bloat -- a way for governments to provide improved public services and reduce expenditures at the same time. ...
Walbridge's company, National Serv-All, is a 27-year-old, family-owned garbage-collection and -disposal business... It was Chuck Walbridge's father, Glen, who launched the family in the garbage business ... in Anderson, Ind...
Chuck Walbridge, who took over in 1979, concentrated on learning the business: how to deliver the service and how to keep the customers satisfied. ... Small as the company was, Walbridge was keenly interested in efficiency and innovation, and he constantly searched for ways to lower costs and improve service. Toward that end, he struck up a relationship with International Harvester Co.'s engineering division, which was located in Fort Wayne, and began testing Harvester's new trucks, making suggestions about improvements. He also began designing his own vehicles, trying out different bodies and control systems. In his quest to keep up-to-date with the latest advances in garbage collection, he made his first trip to Phoenix in 1975.
At the time, Phoenix had not yet begun to contract out its garbage collection, but it did use an innovative collection system designed to minimize labor costs and beat the desert heat. The system was built around a fleet of one-person trucks with mechanical arms that could pick up large, standardized containers. (Today, such containers are so big that transients occasionally take up residence in them, and Walbridge instructs his men to shake the containers before dumping them.) Walbridge was fascinated by the idea and inquired where it had come from. He was told that Phoenix was working with a system developed by a small Arizona company with the unlikely name of Government Innovators Inc.
Government Innovators is a story in its own right. Founded in 1971, it had grown out of the lunchtime bull sessions of a group of entrepreneurially minded bureaucrats in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz. For entertainment, they had often brainstormed about how they would improve their departments if they could keep the money they saved. Among the ideas they came up with was one for automated garbage trucks. The idea seemed like a natural -- so much so that they even designed the equipment and went looking for a company to produce the system. When they found no solid offers, they decided to do it themselves, building the nation's first automated garbage-collection system within the Scottsdale Public Works Department. Subsequently, some of them left public service and formed Government Innovators.
Curious about the possibilities of such a system, Walbridge purchased one of Government Innovators' trucks and took it back to Fort Wayne. Over the next few years, he experimented with various modifications, which he discussed with people at the company. They were duly appreciative. ... Walbridge's knowledge of equipment and systems stood him in good stead in 1983, when National Serv-All suddenly found itself competing nationwide against the giants of the garbage-collection industry. ...
Walbridge was ... impressed with the situation he encountered when he returned to Phoenix in 1982. There had been changes since his first visit seven years earlier. For one thing, the city had begun inviting bids for city contracts, largely in response to the budgetary constraints arising from the tax revolt of the late 1970s. That was a situation faced by government officials all over the country...
The center of privatization activity in Phoenix has been Ron Jensen's Public Works Department, which began inviting bids on garbage-collection contracts in 1978. From the beginning, the city stipulated that the Phoenix Sanitation Division would hold onto 50% of the business, to ensure that garbage collection would continue in the event that a private vendor proved unable to deliver service for one reason or another. The other 50% was put out for bidding, with the sanitation division competing against private vendors for two of the four available five-year contracts.
To keep the department's bids honest, Phoenix arranged to have them prepared by the city auditor, who made sure that they represented costs fairly on a basis comparable to those used by the private contractors. This task was easier in Phoenix than elsewhere because the city uses cost accounting. Thus, for example, the city's equipment fleet is centralized in one division of the Public Works Department and then "rented out" to various departments at a per-mile or per-hour rate calculated to reflect overhead. Management overhead is likewise apportioned among the department, right down to a fraction of the city manager's salary.
All of these systems were in place in 1982 when Walbridge returned to Phoenix...
Walbridge believed National Serv-All would be in a strong position vis-a-vis other competitors, thanks to his own knowledge of the city's equipment and collection system. "I had helped to design the [Harvester] trucks Phoenix was using," he says."We knew more about them than anyone else. While Waste Management and the others buy their equipment, we custom design our own. . . . One of the reasons we beat [both the giants and the city] was that we planned to take their bodies off and put our [more efficient] bodies on." Although the city did have an advantage in knowing the actual costs of maintaining the equipment, says Walbridge, "I felt we had about a 15% advantage in productivity. Our system would load barrels faster, and our compactors gave our bodies more capacity."
In the end, that proved to be the difference. Walbridge's winning bid for contained garbage was a mere penny lower than the city's (on a unit-per-household-per-month basis). Waste Management came in third, SCA Services fourth, and Browning-Ferris Industries fifth. The thinness of the margin notwithstanding, the city conceded defeat and awarded the contract to National Serv-All. ...
National Serv-All might lose the Phoenix contract when it comes up for bid again in four years. Not that Walbridge expects to lose. "Phoenix is exceptional as far as cities go," he says. "They have a better understanding of business, and they are fair." But, in a fair contest, he believes he can usually underbid a government agency. "A city is hobbled by a low-bid requirement in the purchase of equipment, which sometimes forces them to take equipment that may not be the best. I can buy what I want." That means, for example, that a city might be unable to purchase Government Innovators truck bodies, which cost 10% more than other models, but reduce overall costs by about 20%. Adds Kevin Walbridge, "We're motivated, while cities are still cities. They will always be bureaucratic."
Marvin Andrews and Ron Jensen don't agree. They believe that government workers can be motivated to keep costs down, if only because they want to hold on to their jobs. "Quite frankly, we learn from the experience of going through the contracting process," says Jensen. "When we lose a bid, it's up to us to figure out why we lost it. Where were our costs too high? Was it equipment costs? Labor costs? And this whole feeling of competition gets to the unions, too."
This past August, Jensen's department demonstrated just how serious it was about the process, turning in the low bid on a major contract for both contained and uncontained refuse. The city's bid, moreover, was low by a substantial margin, thanks in part to its planned purchase of a fleet of new trucks. National Serv-All -- which came in fourth in the bidding -- was taken by surprise. "What they did," says Walbridge, "was to tighten up their specs on their trucks. It was smart on their part -- the new truck is a first-class piece of machinery." Walbridge says he is now working on an experimental truck that will allow National Serv-All to do better the next time around.
While stimulated by the competition, Walbridge is still not thrilled by the Phoenix approach to privatization. Granted, it works in Phoenix, but elsewhere -- he says -- it is subject to abuse. After all, many governments are less scrupulous than Phoenix's, and Walbridge would prefer not to spend $30,000 preparing a bid only to find that the competition is rigged, or that the process is so murky that he cannot figure out what is going on."I understand a private bid, but it is very difficult to know how a city formulates its bids."
Walbridge's cautions notwithstanding, it is precisely the competitive discipline imposed by Phoenix's system that makes the city an attractive place for National Serv-All to do business. Only by applying private-sector standards to its employees and departments -- and by subjecting them to competitive pressures -- is the city government able to keep track of its real costs, and thereby to come up with detailed job specifications. Without competition, privatization in Phoenix would be subject to all the problems and pitfalls that Walbridge encountered in other cities.
From that perspective, the Phoenix system -- a system of sound management leavened with a touch of entrepreneurism -- may well hold the key to the future of privatization in America. If it does, Chuck Walbridge is liable to find himself competing with government bureaucrats like Ron Jensen for years to come.

Update: I meant to include this 2003 article as an example of government's ability to innovate:

Ron Jensen, Phoenix's public works director, was the driving force behind the development of the first automated collection truck system “He actually is the one who started the privatization effort here as well,” Franklin says.

Tinkering with Equipment

Obviously, automation relies on equipment, which Franklin remembers vividly as the biggest hurdle. “I started as a mechanic in 1979 and worked on the stuff that the city was running. Most of the equipment was farm machinery hydraulics and stuff built in the basement,” he says. “We had a hydraulics shop that had eight or nine people working internally, building a lot of components. We built our own lifts and did those things to support ourselves because the industry wasn't mature enough.”

“Keynes was Really a Conservative”

Bruce Bartlett argues that the conservative position that governments "do nothing in the face of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression" would endanger the very thing free market ideologues are trying to preserve, the capitalist system itself. This was something that Keynes understood very well.

Though this argues that Keynes was a conservative, I don't think it much matters what label we attach to Keynes, it is the idea that government intervention preserves rather than destroys the capitalist system that is important. If we had no government intervention at all, no automatic stabilizers such as unemployment compensation and food stamps, no Social Security for the elderly to fall back upon when equity and stock values plummet, no stimulus package, and no financial bailout package, conditions would be much, much worse and the calls to overthrow the basic capitalist system would be amplified far beyond what we hear even with these programs in place.

Keynes is right that these programs help to make the cyclical swings in capitalist systems less devastating and hence help to preserve the system that we have. But that's not the only reason to provide social insurance. The capitalist system is unmatched in its ability to provide goods and services, and to respond to changing demand, but it is also highly cyclic and the swings in the economy can cause great misery for people who have done nothing to deserve the misfortune the system has bestowed upon them. The people who have lost their jobs and their ability to provide for their families deserve our collective help not just because that's the only way to preserve the capitalist system, but also because it's the right and moral thing to do:

Keynes Was Really A Conservative, by Bruce Bartlett, Commentary, Forbes: Conservatives continue to decry the $787 billion stimulus package... At best, they think it accomplished nothing because the additional federal borrowing took as much out of the economy as the stimulus put in. At worst, the deficits and enlargement of government will lead to slower growth and inflation not too far down the road.
Those on the right have been making this same argument ever since ... John Maynard Keynes popularized the idea of using budget deficits to stimulate growth in his 1936 book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. For this reason, Keynes, even more so than Karl Marx, is the principal bête noire of free market economists. They believe governments should never do anything to counteract economic downturns. ...
What Keynes understood is that ...[i]n really severe downturns, such as we suffered in the 1930s and are suffering today, government action is essential to turn the economy around; the private sector simply can't do it on its own. He also understood that democratic societies cannot long tolerate high levels of unemployment. At some point, people will jettison capitalism for some sort of socialism, which would threaten democracy as well.
Keynes' efforts were motivated by a strong desire to maintain the liberal capitalist order. Honest conservatives have always understood this. In 1945, economist David McCord Wright noted that a conservative political candidate could easily run a campaign "largely on quotations from The General Theory." The following year, economist Gottfried Haberler, of the conservative Austrian school, conceded that the specific policy recommendations of Keynesian economics were not at all revolutionary. "They are in fact very conservative," he admitted.
Peter Drucker, a conservative admirer of Keynes, viewed him as not merely conservative, but ultraconservative. "He had two basic motivations," Drucker explained in ... 1991... "One was to destroy the labor unions and the other was to maintain the free market. Keynes despised the American Keynesians. His whole idea was to have an impotent government that would do nothing but, through tax and spending policies, maintain the equilibrium of the free market. Keynes was the real father of neoconservatism, far more than [economist F.A.] Hayek!"
John Kenneth Galbraith, whose politics were well to the left of Keynes,... agreed with this assessment. "The broad thrust of his efforts, like that of Roosevelt, was conservative; it was to endure that the system would survive," he wrote. But, Galbraith added, "Such conservatism in the English-speaking countries does not appeal to the truly committed conservative." ...
Keynes himself ... expressed contempt for the British Labor Party, calling its members, "sectaries of an outworn creed mumbling moss-grown demi-semi Fabian Marxism." He also termed it an "immense destructive force"... It was obvious to those on the political left ... that Keynes was one of socialism's greatest enemies, even if some on the right still view Keynes as a crypto-communist. ... Indeed, Keynes told playwright George Bernard Shaw that the whole point of The General Theory was to knock away the Ricardian foundations of Marxism. ...
Keynes completely understood the central role of profit in the capitalist system. This is one reason why he was so strongly opposed to deflation and why, at the end of the day, his cure for unemployment was to restore profits to employers. He also appreciated the importance of entrepreneurship: "If the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters … enterprise will fade and die." And he knew that the general business environment was critical for growth; hence business confidence was an important economic factor. As Keynes acknowledged, "Economic prosperity is … dependent on a political and social atmosphere which is congenial to the average businessman."
A major theme of The General Theory is the importance of maintaining the freedom for prices to adjust, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the economy. This made Keynes a strong opponent of price controls and national economic planning, which was much in vogue after the Second World War. "The advantage to efficiency of the decentralization of decisions and of individual responsibility is even greater, perhaps, than the 19th century supposed; and the reaction against the appeal to self-interest may have gone too far," he wrote.
Indeed, the whole point of The General Theory was about preserving what was good and necessary in capitalism, as well as protecting it against authoritarian attacks... In order to preserve economic freedom..., which Keynes thought was critical for efficiency, increased government intervention ... was unavoidable. While pure free marketers lament this development, the alternative, as Keynes saw it, was the complete destruction of capitalism and its replacement by some form of socialism.
"It is certain," Keynes wrote, "that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which … is associated--and, in my opinion, inevitably associated--with present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom."
In Keynes' view, it was sufficient for government intervention to be limited to the macroeconomy--that is, to use monetary and fiscal policy to maintain total spending (effective demand), which would both sustain growth and eliminate political pressure for radical actions to reduce unemployment. "It is not the ownership of the instruments of production which is important for the State to assume," Keynes wrote. "If the State is able to determine the aggregate amount of resources devoted to augmenting the instruments and the basic rate of reward to those who own them, it will have accomplished all that is necessary."
One of Keynes' students, Arthur Plumptre, explained Keynes' philosophy this way. In his view, Hayek's "road to serfdom" could as easily come from a lack of government as from too much. If high unemployment was allowed to continue for too long, Keynes thought the inevitable result would be socialism--total government control--and the destruction of political freedom. This highly undesirable result had to be resisted and could only be held at bay if rigid adherence to laissez-faire gave way, but not too much. As Plumptre put it, Keynes "tried to devise the minimum government controls that would allow free enterprise to work."
The threat of totalitarianism may not be as great today as it was in the 1930s. But it would be naïve to believe that it was possible for the government to stand by and do nothing in the face of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, as many conservative economists advised. The alternative to stimulus could ultimately have been something far worse from the conservative point of view, as Keynes well understood.

links for 2009-08-15

“Part-Time for Economic Reasons”

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Why has the increase in involuntary part-time work been so much higher in this recession as compared to past recessions?

What's really different about this recession?, by Menbere Shiferaw, Macroblog: The short answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post is, of course, "lots of things." One of those things is featured in the latest edition of Economic Highlights, the Atlanta Fed's weekly digest of newly released economic statistics. Here, specifically, is a chart reflecting the trajectories of individuals working part-time for economic reasons in the current and past recessions.
081409
As the chart clearly shows, the increase in people reporting that they are involuntarily working part-time rather than full-time is considerably higher in this recession than in past recessions. Although the increase in these workers has moderated some since the spring of this year, the number of people in the category of working part-time for economic reasons remains at 8.8 million, well above the level of past contractions in both absolute and relative terms.
This recession has given us many puzzles to mull over. Now we can add the unusual pattern of part-time work to the list.

Why is this happening? Here's one explanation:

Lawrence Katz...: This recession has been so bad, that even after businesses have laid off workers, they've been forced to reduce many of their remaining employees from full-time to part-time status. That's what happens when you have to cut to the bone. And then keep cutting.

As the economy recovers, this slack will likely be taken up before firms begin to hire new workers, yet another reason to think that employment will lag far behind the recovery in output.

Stavins: Waxman-Markey is Not a Massive Corporate Give-Away

This is a follow-up to the recent discussion between Brad DeLong and Greg Mankiw on the effects of giving away rather than auctioning carbon permits under a cap and trade system (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). Mankiw begins with the premise that:

Rather than auctioning the carbon allowances, the bill that recently passed the House would give most of them away to powerful special interests.

But is it correct to classify the program as "giving most of them away to powerful special interests"? Here's Harvard's Robert Stavins who knows a thing or two about this topic. He notes that "it is remarkable (and unfortunate) how misleading so much of the coverage has been of the issues and the numbers surrounding the proposed allowance allocation." He also says that "we should be honest that the legislation, for all its flaws, is by no means the 'massive corporate give-away' that it has been labeled.  On the contrary, 80% of the value of allowances accrue to consumers and public purposes":

The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey, by Robert Stavins: ...Now, let’s go back to the hand-wringing in the press and blogosphere about the so-called massive political “give-away” of allowances.  Perhaps unintentionally, there has been some misleading press coverage, suggesting that up to 75% or 80% of the allowances are given away to private industry as a windfall over the life of the program, 2012-2050 (in contrast with the 100% auction originally favored by President Obama).
Given the nature of the allowance allocation in the Waxman-Markey legislation, the best way to assess its implications is not as “free allocation” versus “auction,” but rather in terms of who is the ultimate beneficiary of each element of the allocation and auction, that is, how the value of the allowances is allocated.  On closer inspection, it turns out that many of the elements of the apparently free allocation accrue to consumers and public purposes, not private industry.
First of all, let’s looks at the elements which will accrue to consumers and public purposes.  Next to each allocation element is the respective share of allowances over the period 2012-2050 (measured as share of the cap, after the removal - sale — of allowances to private industry from a “strategic reserve,” which functions as a cost-containment measure.):

a.  Electricity and natural gas local distribution companies (22.2%), minus share (6%) that benefits industry as consumers of electricity (note:  there is a consequent 3% reduction in the allocation to energy-intensive trade-exposed industries, below, which is then dedicated to broad-based consumer rebates, below), 22.2 - 6 = 16.2%b.  Home heating oil/propane, 0.9%

c.  Protection for low- and moderate-income households, 15.0%
d.  Worker assistance and job training, 0.8%
e.  States for renewable energy, efficiency, and building codes, 5.8%
f.   Clean energy innovation centers, 1.0%
g.  International deforestation, clean technology, and adaptation, 8.7%
h.  Domestic adaptation, 5.0%
The following elements will accrue to private industry, again with average (2012-2050) shares of allowances:
i.   Merchant coal generators, 3.0%
j.   Energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries (minus reduction in allocation due to EITE benefits from LDC allocation above) 8.0% - 3% = 5%
k.  Carbon-capture and storage incentives, 4.1%
l.   Clean vehicle technology standards, 1.0%
m. Oil refiners, 1.0%
n.  Net benefits to industry as consumers of lower-priced electricity from allocation to LDCs, 6.0%
The split over the entire period from 2012 to 2050 is 53.4% for consumers and public purposes, and 20.1% for private industry.  This 20% is drastically different from the suggestions that 70%, 80%, or more of the allowances will be given freely to private industry in a “massive corporate give-away.”
All categories - (a) through (n), above - sum to 73.5% of the total quantity of allowances over the period 2012-2050.  The remaining allowances — 26.5% over 2012 to 2050 — are scheduled in Waxman-Markey to be used almost entirely for consumer rebates, with the share of available allowances for this purpose rising from approximately 10% in 2025 to more than 50% by 2050.  Thus, the totals become 79.9% for consumers and public purposes versus 20.1% for private industry, or approximately 80% versus 20% — the opposite of the “80% free allowance corporate give-away” featured in many press and blogosphere accounts.  Moreover, because some of the allocations to private industry are - for better or for worse - conditional on recipients undertaking specific costly investments, such as investments in carbon capture and storage, part of the 20% free allocation to private industry should not be viewed as a windfall.
Speaking of the conditional allocations, I should also note that some observers (who are skeptical about government programs) may reasonably question some of the dedicated public purposes of the allowance distribution, but such questioning is equivalent to questioning dedicated uses of auction revenues.  The fundamental reality remains:  the appropriate characterization of the Waxman-Markey allocation is that 80% of the value of allowances go to consumers and public purposes, and 20% to private industry.
Finally, it should be noted that this 80-20 split is roughly consistent with empirical economic analyses of the share that would be required - on average — to fully compensate (but no more) private industry for equity losses due to the policy’s implementation.  In a series of analyses that considered the share of allowances that would be required in perpetuity for full compensation, Bovenberg and Goulder (2003) found that 13 percent would be sufficient for compensation of the fossil fuel extraction sectors, and Smith, Ross, and Montgomery (2002) found that 21 percent would be needed to compensate primary energy producers and electricity generators.
In my work for the Hamilton Project in 2007, I recommended beginning with a 50-50 auction-free-allocation split, moving to 100% auction over 25 years, because that time-path of numerical division between the share of allowances that is freely allocated to regulated firms and the share that is auctioned is equivalent (in terms of present discounted value) to perpetual allocations of 15 percent, 19 percent, and 22 percent, at real interest rates of 3, 4, and 5 percent, respectively.  My recommended allocation was designed to be consistent with the principal of targeting free allocations to burdened sectors in proportion to their relative burdens, while being politically pragmatic with more generous allocations in the early years of the program.
So, the Waxman-Markey 80/20 allowance split turns out to be consistent  — on average, i.e. economy-wide — with independent economic analysis of the share that would be required to fully compensate (but no more) the private sector for equity losses due to the imposition of the cap, and consistent with my Hamilton Project recommendation of a 50/50 split phased out to 100% auction over 25 years.
Going forward, many observers and participants in the policy process may continue to question the wisdom of some elements of the Waxman-Markey allowance allocation.  There’s nothing wrong with that.
But let’s be clear that, first, for the most part, the allocation of allowances affects neither the environmental performance of the cap-and-trade system nor its aggregate social cost.
Second, questioning should continue about the output-based allocation elements, because of the perverse incentives they put in place.
Third, we should be honest that the legislation, for all its flaws, is by no means the “massive corporate give-away” that it has been labeled.  On the contrary, 80% of the value of allowances accrue to consumers and public purposes, and some 20% accrue to covered, private industry.  This split is roughly consistent with the recommendations of independent economic research.
Fourth and finally, it should not be forgotten that the much-lamented deal-making that took place in the House committee last week for shares of the allowances for various purposes was a good example of the useful, important, and fundamentally benign mechanism through which a cap-and-trade system provides the means for a political constituency of support and action to be assembled (without reducing the policy’s effectiveness or driving up its cost).
Although there has surely been some insightful press coverage and intelligent public debate (including in the blogosphere) about the pros and cons of cap-and-trade, the Waxman-Markey legislation, and many of its design elements, it is remarkable (and unfortunate) how misleading so much of the coverage has been of the issues and the numbers surrounding the proposed allowance allocation.

Paul Krugman: Republican Death Trip

What's the best way to respond to the lies that are being used to scare people into opposing health care reform?:

Republican Death Trip, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: “I am in this race because I don’t want to see us spend the next year re-fighting the Washington battles of the 1990s. I don’t want to pit Blue America against Red America; I want to lead a United States of America.” So declared Barack Obama in November 2007, making the case that Democrats should nominate him ... because he could free the nation from the bitter partisanship of the past. ...
So, how’s it going? Sure enough, President Obama is now facing the same kind of opposition that President Bill Clinton had to deal with: an enraged right that denies the legitimacy of his presidency, that eagerly seizes on every wild rumor manufactured by the right-wing media complex. This opposition cannot be appeased...
Right now, the charge that’s gaining the most traction is the claim that health care reform will create “death panels” (in Sarah Palin’s words) that will shuffle the elderly and others off to an early grave. It’s a complete fabrication...
And not long ago, some of the most enthusiastic peddlers of the ... smear, including Newt Gingrich ... and Mrs. Palin herself, were all for “advance directives” ... the event that you are incapacitated or comatose. That’s exactly what was being proposed — and has now, in the face of all the hysteria, been dropped from the bill.
Yet the smear continues to spread. And ... Senior G.O.P. figures, including so-called moderates, have endorsed the lie. Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, is one of these supposed moderates. I’m not sure where his centrist reputation comes from..., his role in the health care debate has been flat-out despicable.
Last week, Mr. Grassley claimed that ... Ted Kennedy’s brain tumor wouldn’t have been treated properly in other countries because they prefer to “spend money on people who can contribute more to the economy.” This week, he told an audience that “you have every right to fear,” that we “should not have a government-run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.”
Again, that’s what a supposedly centrist Republican, a member of the Gang of Six trying to devise a bipartisan health plan, sounds like.
So much, then, for Mr. Obama’s dream of moving beyond divisive politics. The truth is that the factors that made politics so ugly in the Clinton years — the paranoia of a significant minority of Americans and the cynical willingness of leading Republicans to cater to that paranoia — are as strong as ever. In fact, the situation may be even worse ... because the collapse of the Bush administration has left the G.O.P. with no real leaders other than Rush Limbaugh.
The question now is how Mr. Obama will deal with the death of his postpartisan dream. So far, at least, the Obama administration’s response ... has had a deer-in-the-headlights quality. It’s as if officials still can’t wrap their minds around the fact that things like this can happen to people who aren’t named Clinton...
What, then, should Mr. Obama do? It would certainly help if he gave clearer and more concise explanations of his health care plan. To be fair, he’s gotten much better at that over the past couple of weeks.
What’s still missing, however, is a sense of passion and outrage — passion for the goal of ensuring that every American gets the health care he or she needs, outrage at the lies and fear-mongering that are being used to block that goal.
So can Mr. Obama, who can be so eloquent when delivering a message of uplift, rise to the challenge of unreasoning, unappeasable opposition? Only time will tell.

Maybe the answer is to scare people with the truth. Without health care reform that reduces the growth in costs, we won't be able to sustain the level of health care we are delivering now let alone cover those who don't have access to the care they need. Other countries have demonstrated conclusively that it's possible to deliver high quality universal care at a much lower cost than in the US, so a failure to implement reform is also a failure to maximize the availability of high quality health care. For that reason the people trying to block reform are -- to put it in their terms -- the death squads. They are the the the ones putting health care at risk, particularly care for those reliant upon government programs such as Medicare that will face budget pressures if costs aren't controlled, so lets hope the fabrications and other antics don't deter us from implementing the changes that are necessary to ensure that we can meet our health care needs.

links for 2009-08-14

The Trickle-Up Economy

Paul Krugman notes the latest inequality numbers:

Even more gilded, by Paul Krugman: With everything else going on, the latest inequality numbers from Emmanuel Saez, now updated to 2007, didn’t get much attention. But they’re truly amazing:

How will the crisis change these numbers? Will the change be permanent? The fallout after the dot.com bubble came to an abrupt end suggests a temporary decline in inequality with a rebound back to where it was before or even higher. But the rebound period was also a time when the housing bubble was distorting income shares and sending much of the income growth to the top part of the income distribution. It's not clear that will be repeated (i.e. that we will create another bubble, but it's also not clear that we will fix the problems that lead to excessively high income flowing to the top part of the income distribution). And even if inequality stabilizes after some of the increase in inequality since the late 1970s is reversed due to the recent problems in the economy, the top income share could still end up at a relatively high level.

Update: Brad DeLong:

That means that the top 1-10,000 of the American income distribution receives 6% of pretax household income--meaning that their average income is 600 times that of the average.

Time for a more progressive income taz, is what I am saying...

“The GOP’s Misplaced Rage”

Bruce Bartlett argues that conservative anger is misplaced, it ought to be directed at George Bush rather than the current administration. That may be, but I don't blame conservatives for trying to hang our problems on the Obama administration. If they can get away with it, why not? I suppose you could argue that displacing the blame delays adjustments the GOP needs to make, the argument below is that conservatives will not reestablish credibility until they begin holding Republican Party memebers publicly accountable for transgressions of conservative ideals. I'll let conservatives figure out what is best for their own party, public blame of themselves or public blame of the current administration, my concern is that they can falsely blame the current administration and make questionable assertions without getting called on it in the media. It doesn't hurt your credibility to say false or misleading things about the Obama administration if there is no accountability for it from the major media (who instead seem to fan the flames of outrage irrespective of the underlying truth in their attempt to grab viewers). If the media carries the message without effective rebuttal, why not make outrageous claims?:

The GOP's Misplaced Rage, by Bruce Bartlett: ...Does anyone believe the economy would be growing faster or that unemployment would be lower today if John McCain had won the election? I know of no economist who holds that view. The economy is like an ocean liner that turns only very slowly. The gross domestic product and the level of employment would be pretty much the same today under any conceivable set of policies enacted since Barack Obama’s inauguration. ...
I think conservative anger is misplaced. To a large extent, Obama is only cleaning up messes created by Bush. ... Conservative protesters should remember that the recession, which led to so many of the policies they oppose, is almost entirely the result of Bush’s policies. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession began in December 2007—long before Obama was even nominated. ...
[T]he extremely poor economic performance of the Bush years really set the stage for the current recession. This is apparent when we compare Bush’s two terms to Bill Clinton’s eight years. ...
Throughout the Bush years, many conservative economists ... extravagantly extolled Bush’s economic policies. As late as December 21, 2007, after the recession already began, he wrote in National Review: “the Goldilocks economy is outperforming all expectations.” In a column on May 2, 2008, almost six months into the recession, Kudlow praised Bush for having prevented a recession.
But the truth was always that the economy performed very, very badly under Bush, and the best efforts of his cheerleaders cannot change that fact because the data don’t lie. Consider these comparisons between Bush and Clinton... [list of comparisons] ...
Conservatives delude themselves that the Bush tax cuts worked and that the best medicine for America’s economic woes is more tax cuts; at a minimum, any tax increase would be economic poison. They forget that Ronald Reagan worked hard to pass one of the largest tax increases in American history in September 1982 ... even though the nation was still in a recession that didn’t end until November of that year. Indeed, one could easily argue that the enactment of that legislation was a critical prerequisite to recovery because it led to a decline in interest rates. The same could be said of Clinton’s 1993 tax increase, which many conservatives predicted would cause a recession but led to one of the biggest economic booms in history.
According to the CBO, federal taxes will amount to just 15.5 percent of GDP this year. That’s 2.2 percent of GDP less than last year, 3.3 percent less than in 2007, and 1.8 percent less than the lowest percentage recorded during the Reagan years. If conservatives really believe their own rhetoric, they should be congratulating Obama for being one of the greatest tax cutters in history.
Conservatives will respond that some tax cuts are good while others are not. ... According to the supply-side view, temporary tax cuts and tax credits are economically valueless. Only permanent cuts in marginal tax rates will significantly raise growth.
On this basis, we see that Bush’s tax cuts were pretty much the opposite of what supply-side economics would recommend. The vast bulk of his tax cuts involved tax rebates—which failed in 2001 and again in 2008, because the vast bulk of the money was saved—or tax credits that had no incentive effects. While marginal rates were cut slightly—the top rate fell from 39.6 percent to 35 percent—it was phased in slowly and never made permanent. Neither were Bush’s cuts in capital gains and dividend taxes.
I could go on to discuss other Bush mistakes that had negative economic consequences, such as ... starting unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will burden the economy for decades... But there is yet another dimension to Bush’s failures—the things he didn’t do. In this category I would put a health-care overhaul.
Budget experts have known for years that Medicare was on an unsustainable financial path. ... In 2003, the Bush administration repeatedly lied about the cost of the drug benefit to get it passed, and Bush himself heavily pressured reluctant conservatives to vote for the program.
Because reforming Medicare is an important part of getting health costs under control generally, Bush could have used the opportunity to develop a comprehensive health-reform plan. By not doing so, he left his party with nothing to offer as an alternative to the Obama plan. Instead, Republicans have opposed Obama's initiative while proposing nothing themselves.
In my opinion, conservative activists, who seem to believe that the louder they shout the more correct their beliefs must be, are less angry about Obama’s policies than they are about having lost the White House in 2008. They are primarily Republican Party hacks trying to overturn the election results, not representatives of a true grassroots revolt against liberal policies. ...
Until conservatives once again hold Republicans to the same standard they hold Democrats, they will have no credibility and deserve no respect. They can start building some by admitting to themselves that Bush caused many of the problems they are protesting.

I think he's right that the real anger is about losing the White House, but they only have themselves to blame for that. They do need to recognize this, it wasn't Democrats acting like they are acting that caused the downfall, it was their own choices. But that doesn't mean they can't be effective in tearing down the current administration in the face of a complacent and enabling media that refuses to analyze and report on the veracity of the claims and the true underlying causes of the anger from the right.

The Anti-Greenspan

Dani Rodrik wants the Anti-Greenspan - someone who truly distrusts financial markets and the ideology that surrounds them - to be the next Fed Chair:

Let finance skeptics take over, by Dani Rodrik, Commentary, Project Syndicate: ...Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s term ends in January, and President Barack Obama must decide before then: either re-appoint Bernanke or go with someone else...
 [I]n recent decades central banks have become even more significant as a consequence of the development of financial markets. Even when not formally designated as such, central banks have become the guardians of financial-market sanity. The dangers of failing at this task have been made painfully clear in the sub-prime mortgage debacle. ...
This is a job at which former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan proved to be a spectacular failure. ... As a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors under Greenspan..., Bernanke can also be faulted...
What hampered Greenspan and Bernanke as financial regulators was that they were excessively in awe of Wall Street... They operated under the assumption that what is good for Wall Street is good for Main Street. This will no doubt change as a result of the crisis, even if Bernanke remains at the helm. But what the world needs is a Fed chairman who is instinctively skeptical of financial markets and their social value.
Here are some of the lies that the finance industry tells itself and others, and which any new Fed chairman will need to resist.
Prices set by financial markets are the right ones for allocating capital and other resources to their most productive uses. That is what textbooks and financiers tell you, but ... there are far too many “market failures” in finance for these prices to be a good guide for resource allocation. ... Implicit or explicit bailout guarantees, moreover, induce too much risk-taking. ... So the prices that financial markets generate are as likely to send the wrong signals as they are to send the right ones.
Financial markets discipline governments. This is one of the most commonly stated benefits of financial markets, yet the claim is patently false. ... If in doubt, ask scores of emerging-market governments that had no difficulty borrowing in international markets, typically in the run-up to an eventual payments crisis.
In many of these cases ... financial markets enabled irresponsible governments to embark on unsustainable borrowing sprees. When “market discipline” comes, it is usually too late, too severe, and applied indiscriminately.
The spread of financial markets is an unmitigated good. Well, no. Financial globalisation was supposed to have enabled poor, undercapitalised countries to gain access to the savings of rich countries. It was supposed to have promoted risk-sharing globally. In fact, neither expectation was fulfilled. ...
Financial innovation is a great engine of productivity growth and economic well-being. Again, no. Imagine that we had asked five years ago for examples of really useful kinds of financial innovation. We would have heard about a long list of mortgage-related instruments... The truth lies closer to Paul Volcker’s view that for most people the automated teller machine (ATM) has brought bigger benefits than any financially-engineered bond.
The world economy has been run for too long by finance enthusiasts. It is time that finance skeptics began to take over.

My view is that Bernanke should be reappointed.